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Chicken with Plums

This tale of a moody violinist is a depressive film but not so much a depressing one

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Can a man actually die of disappointment? So it would seem in Chicken With Plums, a live-action French fable, based on the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, and written and directed by the Iranian-born Satrapi (Persepolis) and Vincent Paronnaud, a French illustrator with a taste for the bizarre.

The premise of their dark tale is rather simple: Nasser-Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is a great Persian violinist in Tehran, c. 1958, whose beloved instrument has been destroyed (we eventually learn how). He searches for a new one, but none will do. Then, he buys a magnificent Stradivarius from an eccentric shopkeeper who also sells authentic magic wands (so we're squarely in the realm of magic realism here). 

He takes the instrument home, gets a good night of sleep, goes for a shave and haircut, and then sits down to play (what else?) a mournful tune of sharps and flats. But it's not right, and after shedding a few more tears for his beloved former violin, he decides to die. He contemplates some grizzly options and finally lets death simply overtake him.

Chicken With Plums cuts quickly to his funeral, eight days later, then flashes back to record the bittersweet hours that build to his finale. And while he waits, the directors recall his life with a series of whimsical-cum-surreal episodes — there's a riff on American sit-coms, a silent-film sequence, an animated Angel of Death — in the life of an ardent artist who can't hear the music because he's too busy regretting the past.

Chicken With Plums is a depressive film but not so much a depressing one: It seems to believe that sadness is darkly funny, and that confronting it puts it in its place (guillotine humor, you could say). It's helped a lot by Amalric, the quirky French actor who's played a Bond villain (in Quantum of Solace), but who's just as adept at pathos.

"There was someone, there was no one." This, we're told, is how all Persian stories begin. And so the individual may not even exist in this crazy world of ours. Because of its framing aphorism, Chicken With Plums seems at first to trade in archetypes. But slowly, a story of passion, however misguided it might be, emerges as we watch Nassir meander to his death, leaving behind two children and a world that offers more pleasure than he's willing to embrace.

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